Spring in the Step

There was a definite feeling of spring in the air today. Backing this up was a text from Ronnie about singing Red-winged Blackbirds, always a good sign. He followed that up with a Broad-winged Hawk, a good bird for this time of year and one that has been very scarce in NS this winter. At this point I was thinking about heading that way anyway, if only for a change of scenery. The third text, and I quote “Holy shit, Northern Shrike” swung it and we were soon heading out of the house.

Argyle Head is a really nice river valley that is always birdy. The Red-winged Blackbirds continued to sing from their newly re-inhabited tree tops but the shrike was initially absent. After 15 minutes or so it loped in and the twitchers, all five of us, were rewarded with  back-lit views as it moved from dead tree to dead tree. It did vanish for a while but then came back, bouncing into a tree with much kinder light and we got our photos.

 

Above, a back-lit shot of the shrike. I ramped up the exposure to compensate but failed to drop it when the light was better, hence the hue to the next photo.

Once adjusted, the image improves and, after cropping and pruning, is not too bad.

Emboldened we had a bit of an explore, finding a Snow Goose, clipped and with two similarly attired Canada Geese so don’t go chasing it. We then resolved to visit Meteghan in Digby County. Meteghan has two main attractions; it gets loads of gulls and has a Sip Café. The gulls behaved fairly well but panicked at the wrong moment meaning I only got snatched shots of the Kamchatka Gull that still resides there. Three Glaucous and around 90 Kumlien’s were also enjoyed but small gulls were at a premium. We did eventually find a single Black-headed Gull, almost in full-summer plumage.

 

The superb Kamchatka Gull still hanging out at Meteghan, this shot from the fish plant outfall to the north of the wharf.

That was about it really, we did see four routine Harlequins at Cape Saint Mary’s, never thought I’d call Harlequins routine but they are always there in winter. Yarmouth yielded little but two roadside Wood Ducks at Argyle Head were welcome year-list additions on the way home.

Ugly Mugs

Even in the depth of winter, Turkey Vultures can be seen over parts of southern Nova Scotia. For some reason the Yarmouth area* has quite a concentration, perhaps there are just lots of old people around there and the vultures are born optimists, whatever the attraction, it is sometimes possible to see 20+ arcing through the skies on their pronounced dihedral wing attitudes.

*Good place to release a recuperated Black Vulture don’t you think?

Sandra and I were out that way recently and this little bunch were being surprisingly calm around the end of Chebogue Point Road. Usually the vultures are a little wary, they don’t get many invites to parties with a face like that, and will scoot off when you get within reasonable lens range. This lot must have had something very attractive nearby and there for a while too as they’d been quite liberal with their guano, selecting a parked truck for special attention.

On the way home these Hooded Mergansers were hang out below a bridge right next to the road. With a change of driver and a little bit of wild braking, I was able to lean out and grab a couple of photos before they truly realised what was happening an paddled off – survival instinct I suppose.

 

The weather has been a bit inclement and perhaps overly-breezy recently, I think we nudged 100mph on the wind gauge on the afternoon of 3/14. All this weather makes photo opportunities around Cape Sable Island few and far between. The light has also been a bit dour, rather like a Scottish Headmaster we had at school but without the cane. One of my regular little pull-ins has been Swimm Point. On 3/14 I had only my second Lesser Black-backed Gull of the year on CSI. It sat tight for a while before getting up and doing a bit of light jostling for the look of the thing. Also paddling about was a male American Wigeon and a pair of Northern Pintails. Unfortunately the male chose to stay scrunched up but the female had a bit of a stretch, showing her subtle plumage.

 

As we shiver ever nearer to spring, the pace of the year generally might be regarded as slow. True there has been the odd good bird, two rare geese throughout and the Thayer’s Gull which will be a year highlight, no matter what else turns up. My CSI year list, not that I’m doing one as a mission this year, is only 103, I think I had about 12 more at this time last year. I expect we’ll emerge gloriously from the pre-spring slump with something good, hopefully something easy to see and long-staying just to warm the cockles. I had thought about making some predictions but I decided against it, so I’ll just do 15 Nova Scotia ticks I’d appreciate, preferably all in Shelburne and, even better, all to be found on CSI.  Any excuse for the airing of a few a few cheery photos, all mine. 

With a Clark’s Grebe in New York State recently, perhaps not such an outside bet?

I’m told they were once common, now few and far between. A recent Eastern Meadowlark at Daniel’s Head just would not play the game.

A good shout, I’m sure we will get a Wilson’s Phalarope this year, well, almost sure.

I really should have seen one of these in NS by now.

This might just qualify as my NS nemesis bird! a Townsend’s Solitaire.

Time for Ervin to find another, American Avocet.

We ought to get Northern Wheatears more often.

A spring Franklin’s would be nice.

There has been a Spotted Towhee in Quebec (again) this winter, our turn?

Needs a bit of a blow at just the right time, fingers crossed.

I was surprising that we didn’t get one in last autumn’s Dartmouth warbler and vireo fest, a Black-throated Grey Warbler.

The New Brunswick bird was so close, if it happens again we stand in NS with a boom-box laying the song good and loud!

I’ve heard the story and had the bit where the Daniel’s Head bird sat showed to me, time for another Loggerhead Shrike.

Lots of new posts in the Guzzle sheep pen ready and waiting, Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

A fine looking species and something to hope for, Eared Grebe.

Back to Brown

Yes, the song Amy Winehouse (singer, coke-head) wanted to write but couldn’t, she’d never seen a Gyr, well at least when not stoned. I thought I’d revisit the Joggins Gyr Falcon and put a few more of the 300+ shots I took up here, some are even from very slightly different angles. I thought I’d also tell you what Gyrs mean to me and why.

In the UK Gyr Falcon was mythical and only a very few birders had seen one, they had that prize on their list while we mere mortals coveted it like an attractive Ox. Everything changed with the Berry Head, Devon bird of 1986. That one was a white-phase and had a grand audience for every one of the ten days that it graced the Berry Head, a rocky headland that it obviously found an acceptable substitute for some Icelandic rock face. The genuine rarity of the bird was one of the the defining factors in my really wanting to see one, another factor was a story I’d heard first-hand when staying on Scilly in autumn 1984.

I’d been on Scilly for (a scheduled) three weeks and then had the offer of floor space for a fourth and very much unscheduled week, which I gratefully accepted. A couple of the guys stopping in the same house had been birding on the Western Isles the year before (top left of the UK). They had been camping and emerged from the tent one morning to find a white Gyr sat on a nearby fence post. It was what every birder dreamed, no fantasised might happen, and it was a fantasy that didn’t even involve Kate Bush! This background is by way of making the point that Gyr Falcon, like Thick-billed Murre, has a position in my historical birding psyche that is unlikely to ever shift, no matter how many I see of each, they are special.

That is why we went to Joggins recently to see the Gyr Falcon, that and the obvious opportunity to improve my admittedly shoddy Gyr Falcon photo inventory and to see a real one! Had we not stopped for a curry in Bayer’s Lake (see earlier post)and just carried on home, we might not have turned around and hacked over to the borderlands for the bird. I’d already mentally made my cut-off ‘point-of-no-return’ had positive news of the bird come through, admittedly it was Barrington but all the same, I was ready to abandon the cause.

These last two are for the more interested birders showing the underwing and the talons.

 

I don’t have a deal else to show you, the weather continues in the stroppy vein, horizontal snow as I look out but only the dusty stuff, not buxom flakes. I did have some luck with a local Snowy Owl recently. I don’t see them as frequently as I did in Quebec, just the odd one or two at favoured sites. At Baccaro Point two have been around forever but are usually just faces in the distance unless you go after them, which I don’t. When I arrived there yesterday (3/10), the male was sat on the rocks off the parking lot. He even flew from one perch to another before depositing himself on the shingle beach further along, and even then he was kind to a humble snapper. Not great shots by any means but alright.

 

In the yard the first Common Grackle of the year has just appeared. It is nice when there is one but soon it will be an invasion and the feeders will take a battering. They are a portent of what is to come, hopefully we will have a good spring here and I’ll get to see a few of the not so rare species missing off my CSI and Nova Scotia list. The bad weather does have one positive aspect, I’m Back in the groove for entering my older records from my notebooks into eBird. I’ve done five so far, only about  17 more to do yet, each containing 300+ birding trips. It’s funny, but not having all my old records in eBird irritates and has done for some time, OCD? I might get it done once and for all or, as the birds start to arrive, I’ll get distracted again. If only eBird had been around in 1981, or even computers or even electricity!

You will notice that the blog looks a bit different now, I thought a refresh of the theme was in order. I use the free WordPress themes which means you might see ads, sorry about that. If any ads for Malta, Flamingoes or Lionel Ritchie show up please let me know, there are limits.

Moody March

In like a Lion, out like a Lamb, so bad news for Wildebeests at the beginning of the month but mint growers can expect bumpers sales of their excellent sauce before the traditional moist April gets underway. March is a month that can be ‘right mardy’ as they say at home, that means you never know whether it will be naughty or nice, weather-wise. The first few days were on the naughty side with crap birding weather, then we had a brief hiatus before a southerly system brought wet, but mild weather. And it is still only the 8th day of the month!

We had to visit the big shops a couple of days ago and so took the opportunity to search for the two semi-exotic goose guests that have been around Yarmouth all year now, the Pink-footed and the Greater White-fronted Geese. Our initial searching was fruitless but then it is March and a bit early for even GM apples. We eventually tracked them down at the back of the old mill on Water Street. The views were OK, the photo op average.

 

Earlier we’d searched for the two male Barrow’s Goldeneyes in the harbour. No luck, they might have pushed off, but we did get nice looks at a bunch of Surf Scoter, never managed a decent shot of this species.

 

The next day our regular yard Merlin made itself inconspicuous by hiding in plain sight! It didn’t work.

 

Over the course of the winter I’ve adopted a little spot at Swimm Point, Cap Sable Island, Mostly because it is a convenient spot to sit in bad weather and just see what flies in. Now that the gulls are reducing in number and variety interest turns to anything else. There has been a regular bunch of Greater Scaup there, known as bluebills locally, and in with them, two Lesser Scaup. Here is a bit of a panorama shot and a couple of Lesser Scaup images. Not great.

 

The same spot has just started attracting Brant, I still call them Brent Geese, right into the bay. One bird was banded but I could not get any detail, even with photoshop manipulation, not even a number of any sort.

 

At nearby West Head, CSI, this Thick-billed Murre hung off the end of the breakwater on 3/7, it might well be one seen at the end of February although, given the abundance of Great Black-backed Gulls, maybe not. Does anyone know why Black Guillemots openly consort with the murre chomping gulls and come away unscathed when the murres and the Dovekies always seem to end up as an entree? Never seen that happen to a Razorbill though, perhaps because they are so heavily armed.

Blending in

The often busy wharves at West Head, Newellton are a great place to see and photograph a few birds. If you hit it right, a quiet work day but with decent light, you can park up on one of the wharves, blend in with the assorted fishing business paraphernalia and just wait for those photo opportunities to arrive. Recently, five Red-necked Grebes have decided to hang out there but on each visit either the weather was no good, or the wharf busy, so I just bided my time. Yesterday (3/2/17) all was quiet, the sun shone (from the right direction) and so I sat and waited. Sure enough, once the van had become part of the wharf a procession of birds drifted past.

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Only two of the five Red-necked Grebes came close enough to snap, all are in winter plumage and it is unlikely that any will linger long enough to attain their striking summer dress (the odd one does but is normally offshore and out of lens range). The two shots below are from another time, one showing the grebe getting a rusty look about the neck, the other a not great show of two birds in full summer plumage.

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Common Eiders are getting frisky, little bunches bobbed past, the males doing their suggestive “oooing”, the female think, not yet sunshine, as they kept their distance.

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Common Loons are regulars off most wharves, West Head is no exception.

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Black Guillemots were about too, starting to get a bit more black here and there but still someway off their light absorbing summer plumage.

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What few gulls were around were unspectacular, the Kumlien’s Gulls numbers have dropped dramatically, in-part because there is nothing coming from the plants.

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I sat some time hoping that a few of the fantastic male Red-breasted Mergansers would come along but they rarely venture inside in the same way. Similarly the three regular scoters don’t much fancy any of our wharves for loafing, unlike say Meteghan in Digby County. Soon the wharves will be quieter save for a few rough looking gulls and the eiders and our birding attention will turn elsewhere. We are not quite at the winter cabin fever stage yet but it is always just a few inclement days away.

Worst Dips

There is a lot of pleasure to be gained in seeing a new bird. Purists argue that twitching or chasing, call it what you will, is unproductive. This, of course, is not true, it produces experience, a commodity of very high value in any sphere, especially so with birding. Twitching also teaches another valuable lesson, determination. People start birding in these times of instant news and very often see a lot in a short space of time. The dice always seem to roll kindly for them but those who have been at it a while know that a fall will come. It might just be a stumble or it could be a full blown fall, a run of dreadful luck that has you questioning your sanity. At this time in your birding career you are at a crossroads, you can chuck it all in and go back to pottering or take it in the chin and fight back with renewed determination. I met such a crossroads way back in 1984 and I’m still going strong.

To put this in context, I was doing a big year, no cellphones,orpagers just phone booths when you could find one and a diary in a café in Norfolk – and you had to hope a friendly voice answered the phone when you called and asked the age-old question, “anything about?” My year turned out well but there was a major dip for a major bird in Europe, a Belted Kingfisher. For you entertainment here is the story of that dip and, just so you know, I dipped the same bird on the west coast of Ireland in March (I think) of the next year!

The story so far. With almost zero cash and a tendency to destroy my cars, I was nearing the magic 300 species in a year that I was aiming for. I’d been everywhere in the UK accumulating that total and, despite the transport issues, was still managing to get to birds, one way or another. This excerpt is from my first eBook, ‘Going for Broke’.

belted-kingfisher-1-10-2

West Ireland

Despite the expense of the year so far, both in terms of finance and days off work, a nagging itch had developed in November that required remedial treatment. The cause of the itch can be directly traced to the presence of a Belted Kingfisher in Ireland, a Nearctic species that is very rare in Europe. The bird had been present for some time, frequenting a stone pier in the little County Clare village of Ballyvaughan in West Ireland. The intensity of the itch increased when Bill Simpson (a birding friend and ace twitcher) went for, saw and even painted the bird. I’d always admired his paintings and I very much admired the bird in this one, I had to go.

I took the coach from Nottingham to Birmingham, then changed to another, bound for Holyhead and across to Dublin, That was the easy part. Once in Dublin, I had to cross Ireland and then find transport to the isolated village. I managed to locate a coach that went so far, and then I started to hitch. I was not a seasoned hitchhiker like Bill and I probably should have had a better idea of what I was doing, before trying something as ambitious as a West Ireland trip – we all have to learn, I suppose.

Almost as soon as I left the coach it started to rain, I started to walk. After a mile or so a sign said ‘Ballyvaughan 15 miles’, nearly there I thought, then realised that I might end up walking the equivalent distance of Nottingham to Mansfield in the rain and, fairly soon, the dark too. Undaunted, I took the turn and walked another few miles, flashing my optimistic thumb at any and every passing vehicle. As I followed the course of the coast I realised I would probably not get there before dark now and so I slowed to a stop to consult the map I had, I was lost. It was then that I heard the barking of dogs. To my right, three rather large animals, each capable of competing for the lead in the Hound of the Baskervilles, were bounding down the drive of the posh mansion behind them and the imposing steel gates, whose sole purpose may have been the limiting of their freedom, were open. I started to move away as fast as I could.

Woof Woof

The dogs came out into the road and began to move purposefully towards me. I threw down my only bag of chocolates (chocolate drops to be precise), hoping to deflect them and to buy some time and yards. Luckily it worked and, as I continued to make distance between the pooches and myself, I could see them snuffling around the bag and wagging their tails, maybe they were not so vicious after all! My luck then changed when I stumbled into a small village; there was a shop, where I could replenish my chocolate supply, and a pub where I could quench the thirst now present in my strangely dry throat.

Mine’s a Pint

I made for the pub first and sat by the fire, drying the only clothes I had with me. The landlord served me up my first pint of real Irish Guinness and I dried off in a haze of alcohol and steam. Once I had dried out the map a bit, I walked over to the bar and asked the barmaid to show me where I was. After much consideration and a few reorientations of the admittedly large-scale map, she called the landlord over. To my utter astonishment, neither could actually pinpoint the place on my map that their little piece of creation occupied; they just pointed generally to an area south of Galway Bay. I put this lapse in basic awareness down to the poor condition of the by now bedraggled, map and left it there.

I wandered outside into the rain suitably refreshed via the Guinness. The remarkably well-stocked shop provided me with an adequate chocolate supply and the time in front of the pub fire had given me a less damp coat. I stuck my thumb out and hoped that whoever stopped, if anyone did, would have more idea of where they actually were than the folks in the pub. Almost immediately, a young guy in an aged Mazda pulled over and offered me a lift. Yes, he knew Ballyvaughan, it was perhaps 12 miles away and could take me to within two miles of it, I could then walk or hitch the rest of the way. This was definitely an upturn in fortunes and I gleefully dumped my bag in the back and off we went.

He was clearly very proud of the car, perhaps not enough to maintain it mechanically get an M.O.T (Ministry of Transport certificate of road worthiness) or even insurance, but he did like to show off. This became more apparent when we proceeded to hurtle down country lanes at ridiculous speeds, with his English passenger worrying about getting wet again but this time from the inside. Eventually, and it did seem like a lifetime, he stopped, wished me luck and tore off into the gathering gloom. Ballyvaughan next stop.

No Rooms at the B&B

As I wended my way down the lane to the town I was passing lots of tidy little bungalows and it was clear that Ballyvaughan was on the up. Tourism is an important part of the Irish GDP (about 4% or five billion Euros) and the locals had clearly been busy kitting out their homes for the impending tourist boom. A good sign I thought, there should be no trouble finding a B&B in this thriving seaside town, wrong!

I later found out that enterprising Irish citizens had (allegedly lawyers, allegedly!) found that EU grants were available to renovate their properties for use as B&B businesses. The grants were intended to boost the economy and bring employment to local builders, etc. It mainly seems to have brought employment to the people who made the ‘No Vacancy’ signs, as that was what all the properties I passed displayed. It seems that some unscrupulous individuals got a subsidised renovation on their home without ever intending to take a guest (again, allegedly!).

Arriving with a little light left, I located the pier (built 1837) where the bird regularly perched and waited. Dusk began to fall quickly and so I asked around in the pub that was at the base of the pier whether there was any accommodation to be had, expecting all the time to be having to find some quiet, dry spot where I could use my sleeping bag. Amazingly my luck was in and I ended up in a nice little place, a real B&B, which had one room left. I booked in with the option of a second night that I optimistically didn’t expect to need. I had a shower and a hot meal and sat in the guest TV room writing some notes up, I was warm and comfy, things were looking up.

Just Dusting

I quickly discovered that I was sharing the guest section of the house with a girl from Newcastle. We chatted for a while about a wide range of topics but without being too strong on opinion, as strangers might do, and then said our goodnights and turned in. She was doing a solo walk of the nearby Burren, one of those oddities of geology and rock-solid evidence of continental drift, where the flora is more akin to that found in Portugal that the rest of Ireland. Ballyvaughan was at one end of the Burren and so the natural starting place from which to walk it. She was expecting to be getting off on her long-distance ramble early the next day. I didn’t envy her; she was hauling a pack the size of a hay bale although, looking at her, she may well have trained for the trip by juggling breeze blocks.

Around two of the clock, nature called and so I dressed suitably and went to the bathroom across the hall. As soon as I opened my bedroom door, the owners of the house appeared in the guest area between the rooms and started tidying the place up. I thought it all very odd but I acknowledged them with a nod and a grunt suitable for the hour, and went about my business. It was only during our early breakfast, while chatting to the girl, that I discovered the same thing had happened to her at some similarly ungodly hour.

It seemed that, good Catholics that they were, the house owners were not going to have any sinning by the sophisticated city types under their roof. The thought had never actually crossed my mind. She was a lesbian (she said, but you have no idea how many times I’ve been told that) and I was even less of an oil painting then than I am now. Her only chance would have been if she’d been covered in feathers and sat on the pier making rattling noises like a Belted Kingfisher, my only chance appeared to have been radical surgery and changing my name to Maude!

Absent Friends

Back to the twitch and I spent the day looking at that pier from all angles, scoped the bay and scanned the whole area roughly once every 30 seconds. As village life went about its normal business, locals stopped to chat with me as they passed by, several had seen the bird and took great care and delight in describing the plumage in detail. They would almost to a man (and woman) stand and point to its favourite perch, and subsequent whitewash as delivered by the bird, could I at least add it to my DNA list?

I was not surprised by the friendliness and familiarity of the locals; Ballyvaughan then was a very sleepy little hamlet, home to about 200 people. Nothing much happened there, week on week, and the Belted Kingfisher and subsequent twitch was the biggest news locally since a stolen cow was found in one of the local castles and caused a mighty fuss. That was in 1540 and the locals had still not got over it!

The next and very wet morning, the fine lady who ran Meek’s, the pub at the base of the pier, opened up early and gave me breakfast (my second of the day). She let me watch the pier from the pub until the rain finished and would not let me pay her for the food, which was just as well as my Irish punts (a currency replaced by the Euro later) had dwindled to alarmingly low levels. The currency crisis was just another one of many little technical problems for me to negotiate later.

It was fascinating to sit there in the pub while she did her daily chores. Local people would just pop in and chat and, it seemed, take a morning tipple. Most conversations were along the lines of how an individual was ‘in himself’, after a fracas in the pub the evening before, or who was supposed to be dallying with whom, to the mock shock of the whole town. It was like being an extra on the set of the TV show, Ballykissangel!

Once the weather dried up, I set about being more proactive in my search. I never strayed too far from the pier, especially after the Wales Sociable Plover debacle (an earlier chapter), but I did walk the sea front a bit and do a bit more than waiting. I spent time enjoying Long-tailed Ducks, diving in the surf, and I checked every gull I saw, finding a Ring-billed; how many of those are there present on the under-watched west coast of Ireland?

It gradually dawned on me that the bird had gone and it was time that I followed. I decided not to try to hitch but to take the coach back to Galway. I got on the twice-weekly service to Galway from Ballyvaughan; the cost was 16 Irish punts. I only had eight, so I offered the driver a cheque, one of the pretty ones from NatWest (a bank) with birds on it. He was sceptical initially, and I got the impression that they were something new to him. Anyway, he agreed to accept it and I then managed to pick up the return coach from Galway, after due negotiation over my return ticket that I’d bought in advance. Five days for a twitch, torrential rain, possibly rabid dogs, Guinness and another self-confessed lesbian but no Belted Kingfisher, such is life.

Postscript – I never did see a Belted Kingfisher in the UK although, not long after moving to Canada, one showed up on a canal not 40 minutes from my Nottingham home!

By the way, I have finished adding photos to my illustrated Nova Scotia list, see the pages at the top. The page is not quite finished, pending I think is the expression.